An introduction to Ezra-Nehemiah

Starting today I will post bits and pieces from my Ezra-Nehemiah commentary.

The World of Ezra and Nehemiah

1.1 The Fall of the Babylonian Empire and the Rise of the Persian Empire.

Because of their persistent idolatry and apostasy, God allowed Israel to be taken into exile by the Babylonians under the command of the despot Nebuchadnezzar (604-562 B.C.). The Babylonian army took Jewish captives in three waves, in 605, 597, and 587 B.C. During the final invasion in 587 B.C., the Babylonians not only destroyed the city gates and walls of Jerusalem, but also Israel’s religious center, Solomon’s Temple; thus, the loss the Jews experienced was emotional, national and spiritual, simultaneously. In addition to asserting his power over the Jews, Nebuchadnezzar also directed massive building projects during his reign: bridges, ziggurats, and a temple to the city-god Marduk. His successors could not come close to the achievements of their predecessor who reigned for 42 years.

A second key figure in this historical period was Cyrus the Great, the founder of the Persian Empire, who became king of Elam around 559 B.C. After Cyrus defeated the king of the Lydian empire in 546 B.C., he turned his attention towards Babylonia. Cyrus overtook the capital city of Babylon on October 12, 539 B.C. after a bloody battle at Opis. Just nine years later (530 B.C.), he died in battle while pursuing more land for his already mammoth empire.

Cyrus II c. 559-530
Cambyses II 530-523
Bardiya 522
Darius I 522-486
Xerxes I 486-465
Artaxerxes I 465-424/3
Xerxes II 424/3
Darius II 423-405/4
Artaxerxes II 405/4-359
Artaxerxes III 359-338
Artaxerxes IV (Arses) 338-336
Darius III 336-331
Artaxerxes V 331

Table 1: Achaemenid Dynasty (559-330 B.C.)[1]

1.2 The Religion of the Persians.

Persia was a land of religious tolerance. While Persia’s kings themselves worshiped many pagan gods, they allowed and even aided the institution of the priesthood of various religious other groups.[2] Darius I (522-486) was greatly influenced by Zoroastrianism, the teachings of Zarathustra. It is possibly that by 480 B.C. Zoroastrianism became the official Persian religion.[3]

Zarathustra was born in eastern Iran around 628 B.C., although some scholars date his life between 1700 and 1500 B.C.[4] He was trained for service as a priest in a pagan cult, and at the age of thirty Zarathustra went down to a river to get some water for a pagan festival and allegedly received a heavenly vision.[5] The heavenly visitor named Ahura Mazda (which means “Wise Lord”)[6] revealed “truth” to Zarathustra and commissioned him to teach others; however, people of his day did not commonly consider Zarathustra divine and he was venerated only much later after his death.[7] He preached monotheism, which may be the reason many refused to listen, for his teachings were a radical departure from the polytheistic thought of his day. The prophet’s instructions also included a strict code of purity laws,[8] and correct conduct involved a strictly ethical life that honored mankind and the duty of man to care for the world and the animals within it.[9] Truth-telling was expected, water revered, and cleanliness encouraged. Ritual washings included passage through nine pits containing cattle urine, sand, and water.[10] Priests were responsible for daily sacrifices that normally involved the burning of a bull.

Not only did the Zoroastrians refuse to build temples, but they also erected no statues or altars: Herodotus reported that the Persians carved no images of their gods because it was considered folly to visualize them in human form.[11] The Persians revered fire and were encouraged to pray five times daily in the presence of fire. Zarathustra’s teachings were recorded in a sacred book called The Avesta, which was divided into three parts. The first section, called the Yasna, included the main liturgy and the Gathas. The second part, called the Yashts, were hymns directed to various deities, and finally, the Videvdat contained the moral law code.[12] The Gathas contained seventeen poetic hymns addressed to Ahura Mazda [13]and were thought to be the original teachings of Zarathustra. The rest of The Avesta came much later as priests and scribes interpreted and wrote commentary on the Gathas. Although contemporaneous priests experienced little difficulty in interpretation, some scholars believe the Gathas are “the most obscure and ambiguous compositions of all oriental religious literature.”[14]

According to tradition, Zarathustra was stabbed to death by a pagan priest at the age of seventy-seven.[15] There is no evidence that commoners widely embraced Zarathustra’s teachings, so it would be fair to conclude that the majority of the Persian culture remained essentially pluralistic.

Map 1: The Persian Empire

Copyright 1999 MANNA All Rights Reserved. Used with permission.

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